There are three pure sci­ence Crown Research Institutes in New Zealand. GNS looks after geo­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na. NIWA stud­ies water in all its var­i­ous forms. And Landcare Research, where I worked for four years, is con­cerned with soils, flo­ra, and fau­na. Maps play a real­ly spe­cial role with­in that work­place. And I’d often find some com­bi­na­tion of Garth and Pierre and Caroline and Marino lean­ing over a roughly-printed topo­graph­ic map or a hand-drawn chart. And togeth­er we’d ges­ture and point and nod and dis­agree, trac­ing lines with our fin­gers and point­ing out incon­sis­ten­cies with ball­point pens.

Unidentifiefd man and woman, sur­vey­ing a map of stock con­trol and infect­ed areas, con­fer­ence on dis­eases in the Wairarapa dis­trict, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post news­pa­per. Ref: EP/1959/1566-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://​natlib​.govt​.nz/​r​e​c​o​r​d​s​/​23504148

And by talk­ing through the map, we devel­oped a shared under­stand­ing of our respec­tive prob­lem domains. And those graph­i­cal props, they rarely lived longer than a few hours. Although on occa­sion a land­scape pro­file sketched on the back of a pie pack­et proved so valu­able that it would actu­al­ly get filed away. But the pow­er of those arti­facts was large­ly in their tran­sience. And being ephemer­al, it encour­aged us to scrib­ble and cross out and anno­tate, all the while nar­rat­ing our thought process­es to one another.

Rebecca Solnit is per­haps best known as a real­ly insight­ful essay­ist. But she’s also col­lab­o­rat­ed with car­tog­ra­phers on two pub­lished atlases. This map of oil infra­struc­ture and bird migra­tion from her atlas of New Orleans is one of my favorites. 

Maps allow me to make propo­si­tions about cities and places as noth­ing else does.
Rebecca Solnit, The Appetite for Maps: Cartographic Hungers and Feasts”, University of California Berkeley, 2013 at 40:57 [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And last week I watched this YouTube clip of her deliv­er­ing a lec­ture where she made the state­ment that maps allow me to make propo­si­tions about cities and places as noth­ing else does.” And it brought to mind my time as a sci­en­tist and how much my col­leagues and I learnt from the act of cre­at­ing and talk­ing about and these throw­away data visu­al­iza­tions with one another. 

And it made me reflect that with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of web site ana­lyt­ics, I don’t see this hap­pen­ing to near­ly the same degree with­in mem­o­ry insti­tu­tions like the ones that we work with­in. And that’s not to say that it doesn’t hap­pen, more that unlike in the sci­ences, these activ­i­ties tend to be clus­tered in spe­cif­ic con­texts or indi­vid­u­als, rather than prac­ticed by every­one as a mat­ter of course. And I won­der what it would look like if we fold­ed these modes of inquiry and rep­re­sen­ta­tion into our every­day prac­tices of work­ing with our col­leagues and collections. 

Screenshot from Dear Data, Week 26: A week of workspace”

And these are some things that inspire me. This is one entry from the won­der­ful Dear Data project, where each week Georgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, they pick a theme and they spend a week col­lect­ing data and then cre­at­ing a visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some aspect of that theme, and send the oth­er the result as a visu­al data postcard.

Here Stefanie is show­ing the indi­vid­ual items that have accu­mu­lat­ed on the desk in her office work­space. So, some­thing incred­i­bly mun­dane. And each cir­cle rep­re­sents an object, and the top ten types of items are assigned a col­or. But what intrigues me is Stefanie com­men­tary when she observes that through the act of con­struct­ing this, she real­ized that the items on my desk are more of an indi­ca­tion of my per­son­al­i­ty, hopes and inse­cu­ri­ties, than I’d ever realized.”

most of the items on my desk aren’t real­ly essen­tial for work, but are there for more emo­tion­al rea­sons. And these items are large quan­ti­ties of lit­tle tiny items that are scat­tered around my desk in a hap­haz­ard way. So I hang onto busi­ness cards that peo­ple who are in jobs more inter­est­ing and glam­orous than mine give me, as it makes me feel that I’m one of their peers (sil­ly, I know). Or I always emp­ty out my wal­let on my desk to remove all the coins and notes I pick up from the coun­tries I vis­it on my trav­els, so these are found here too, func­tion­ing as aides-mémoires of past adventures.
Stefanie Posavec, Dear Data Week 26: A week of workspace”

Kate Hannah, who spoke just a moment ago, togeth­er we just recent­ly start­ed some­thing called the Data Poets Society. And every cou­ple of months, we gath­er at the University of Auckland over drinks and food to share inter­est­ing data visu­al­iza­tions and learn from oth­ers. Talk to one of us if you’d like to become involved. 

Last month, Kate shared this lo-fi delight, which is a gen­dered his­to­ry of sci­ence prizes in New Zealand. Presenting the data as a chart on a white­board allowed oth­ers to phys­i­cal­ly point at dif­fer­ent parts of the plot, mak­ing obser­va­tions or ask­ing for clar­i­fi­ca­tion. And the inter­play between the ver­bal nar­ra­tion and the pen on the wall graph­ic pro­vid­ed insights into both the nature of the data and into Kate’s think­ing processes.

And that’s real­ly valu­able. I think it’s worth just quick­ly mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion between visu­al think­ing and visu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion, because these modes of work­ing with data, they get con­fused but I think that they’re distinct.

Visual think­ing, which is what I’m talk­ing about, hap­pens in pri­vate. It’s you alone, or you and a col­league in the next desk, or a small group crowd­ed around a lap­top. It’s ten­ta­tive, it’s messy and explorato­ry, and val­ues quick iter­a­tion over correctness. 

Visual com­mu­ni­ca­tion hap­pens once you under­stand what you’re work­ing with and are ready to com­mu­ni­cate this to an audi­ence. It’s refined, it’s reduced to a hand­ful of dimen­sions, and it’s often per­for­ma­tive. Visual communication’s the realm of the pro­fes­sion­al design­er. But I think that visu­al think­ing is for everyone.

Sometimes I think about these sorts of work­ing graph­ics as a sort of men­tal scaf­fold­ing. In the act of ren­der­ing data, or draw­ing our thoughts, we assem­ble a con­struct to hang oth­er con­cepts from. So it’s a con­struct that can be extend­ed or mod­i­fied or dis­as­sem­bled and turned into some­thing new. Scaffolds are frame­works that help us to build more per­ma­nent struc­tures. And graph­ics are a means to explore ideas and dis­cov­er what we real­ly think about something.

Men sit­ting on a make-shift scaf­fold­ing, watch­ing race, at the New Zealand Grand Prix, Ardmore Airport, Manukau, Auckland. Further neg­a­tives of the Evening Post news­pa­per. Ref: EP/1960/01050113-1-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://​natlib​.govt​.nz/​r​e​c​o​r​d​s​/​30646962

This talk came about because two nights ago, I was reflect­ing on an exer­cise that Digital New Zealand and the National Library online teams par­tic­i­pat­ed in ear­li­er this year. Andy asked that each per­son cre­ate a paper or a dig­i­tal visu­al­iza­tion of some aspect of our job or the col­lec­tions or ser­vices that we work with. We had one month to make some­thing. And at the end of that month, we gath­ered and we shared the things that we’d made. 

I explored some aspect of our sys­tem that had been both­er­ing me, and I put togeth­er some…bloody scat­ter plot hex bin…thing. And that was fine. But the amaz­ing moment hap­pened right at the end, where the last per­son up appeared real­ly quite uncer­tain about what she’d made. And she walked to the front of the room, and she hung up this large piece of white butch­er paper. And, sor­ry this is sur­pris­ing­ly emo­tion­al, because I was blown away. 

It was cov­ered in a felt-tip pen ren­der­ing of our meta­da­ta har­vest­ing sys­tem. And it was seen from her per­spec­tive. And it had these small lit­tle yel­low Post-it notes where she traced the paths that the meta­da­ta doc­u­ments, where they move through the var­i­ous sys­tems and lay­ers of tech­nol­o­gy. And punc­tu­at­ing this flow, she’d indi­cat­ed the var­i­ous cir­cum­stances and con­texts where a human might touch that metadata. 

And I played a real­ly big role in design­ing the sys­tem that she was describ­ing. But I had nev­er seen it like that. I’d nev­er seen it through the eyes of the per­son who was dri­ving it. And this graph­ic became this incred­i­bly use­ful prop for her to nar­rate her expe­ri­ence. And it was this space for her to con­vey the depth of her expe­ri­ence, and to help the rest of the team reach this shared understanding.

But there’s some­thing a lit­tle bit more than that. Because, you know when some­one presents some­thing and you can see that they’re uncer­tain about how it’s going to be received. And then they get into it. And what they are say­ing is absolute­ly fas­ci­nat­ing to every­one in the room, and you feel your fel­low audi­ence mem­bers get­ting hooked in, and this sort of glow comes off them and it push­es that to the speak­er. Which embold­ens them fur­ther, and then the talk gets bet­ter and bet­ter. And this is what hap­pened to this col­league of mine.

And some­thing about giv­ing the space where she could demon­strate her mas­tery of the sys­tem and the integri­ty with which she treats her job, it just blew me away. And I hope that you can have sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences like that in you work­places. And I encour­age you all just too make real­ly rough graph­ics and explain them to one anoth­er. Thank you.


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